GrammarPhile Blog

April Aggravations Tourney Winners

Posted by Terri Porter   Apr 15, 2015 4:30:00 AM

Reflexive Pronouns Crowned Tourney Champ

crownBeating back the persistent Plurals/Possessives in overtime, Reflexive Pronouns narrowly won our April Aggravations tourney. Both had advanced to the final round after Plurals handily beat One Word or Two, and Reflexive edged the upstart Misplaced Modifiers in the Final Four.

We couldn’t have asked for a more exciting championship, as the two teams traded the lead throughout both regulation and overtime. But a last-minute surge by Plurals/Possessive’s fell short, and Reflexive Pronouns itself emerged victorious.

Some balked at the erratic officiating, lead by S. Pellcheck, who missed some flagrant fouls (like the three in the last two sentences). And his unapologetic retort of “Hey, you get what you pay for” had many calling for his resignation. Still, most agreed the tournament was an unqualified success.

Congratulations to readers Lynda Idleman, Terence Kierans and Jeanette Paisley, whose brackets remained intact going into the final round. Lynda and Jeanette, who both picked Reflexive to take it all, share bragging rights until our next tourney. Thanks to everyone for playing.

* * *

Speaking of April Aggravations … is there any greater than tax day? Few laws are as complex and convoluted as the U.S. tax code. In that spirit, we’ve assembled a hodgepodge of government-related words and phrases that give people fits in much the same way tax forms do:

Income tax return — Although income and tax both modify return, the phrase need not be hyphenated because it’s a well-established compound adjective that’s easily understood as is.

Federal/state — Unless they’re part of a proper noun (i.e., an official name), these words should be lowercase. Examples: Federal Reserve Act; federal Affordable Care Act; New York State government; state government. That said, government agencies and lawyers often capitalize these terms — along with short forms such as “the Act.” In these cases, rather than changing all such instances to lowercase, we defer to the client’s preference and aim just to ensure consistency throughout the document.

Fewer/less taxes — Which is correct: I’m paying [fewer/less] taxes this year? Answer: Neither, because I’m paying more. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that’s not the case. The answer depends on what taxes means.

If it refers to more than one kind of tax (e.g., income tax, sales tax), fewer is the correct choice because it refers to things you can count. But if, as here, taxes is a collective noun (also called a mass noun) referring to the single sum of money I have to turn over to the IRS when I file my return, less is technically the correct term. (The use of less to modify plural nouns is becoming increasingly common, and in some instances it may be OK. In others, just … no. We’ll take up this issue in a future post.)

But does “less taxes” sound right? Although it certainly sounds better than “more taxes,” it’s harder on the ear than “fewer taxes.” But “fewer taxes” isn’t grammatically correct, because we’re still talking about the one amount that goes to the government instead of the different kinds of taxes.

The easiest way to handle this construction is to say “I’m paying less in taxes this year.” That makes less a noun rather than an adjective and changes taxes from a collective noun to being part of a prepositional phrase. In the end, just be happy if “less in taxes” describes your particular situation.

Let us know in the comments below about any other tax-related grammar conundrums you have. Oh, and … happy tax day.


Topics: homonyms, possessives, pronouns, grammatical errors, reflexive pronouns, collective noun, plurals, government-related words

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